Welcome to my entry for Petit Fours and Hot Tamales October Treasure Hunt! I feel honored to have been assigned Halloween. The story that follows is a pre-quel to my current work in progress, There's No Goodbye. It's about a magical florist who must save the life of a doomed soul and it begins on Christmas Eve one year from the story you are about to read. Enjoy and I'd love to read your comments as I'm always looking for feedback!
The bottle of Jameson picked a bad moment to bang against the plastic container in the bottom of Marchand’s knapsack. She stopped and ducked into the doorway of a mausoleum, her fingers deftly wedging the whiskey bottle into place again. She crouched lower as a flashlight played out in a faint arc in the Jewish section, illuminating the dull red of shedding leaves. For October the night was slightly warm, but Marchand wore a black sweater to blend into the shadows and was thankful for the warmth against the chill she felt coming from inside her body. The guard patrolled in a pattern, allowing Marchand a slim belief that she’d complete her mission before he caught her, but not if the bottle that had cost her a day’s tips gave her away. Atlanta was not New Orleans; she couldn’t pay a guard to look the other way for a bridal ancestor ritual.
Marchand timed her advance through Oakland with the clacking of the Marta trains running every thirteen minutes along the northwest perimeter of the cemetery. She knew exactly how many steps it would take from each stopping point to get her across the original six acres and onto the back side of Oakland where the McCarty plot faced the old Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. This deliberateness, the precision of her plans, had not come as easily to Marchand as she would have wished. But a skill acquired in counter to the natural order of her personality had given her spells a resonance that increased their potency.
Brick walkways, humped and misshapen by a century of rain, were laid out in a tidy grid. Moving quickly, she turned left at the juncture of four paths. At the highest point in the cemetery the Austell plot rose up in a solid brown mass; huge blocks forming the base with Gothic arches and spires rising up into the sky. Marchand crouched against the iron gate and waited; cold pinpricks rose up on her back from the metal pressing through her sweater. From this vantage point she could see the lights from the taqueria just across Memorial Drive and the slight wind carried the heavy scent of cooking oil. In the thirteen minutes she waited the sound of cars traveling down I-20 rose in a distant swell before the trains drowned them out again. Oakland had once stood out in the country, but the thick brick walls rimming in the forty-five acres now provided a bulwark against urban encroachment instead of errant cattle. Inside the cemetery the Victorian world, with its heavy symbology and efflorescence of ritual mourning and devotion, held its power in spite of the industrial complexes and light pollution pushing in on all sides.
Marchand dashed from her spot at the sound of the approaching train and headed down the final path to her destination. The contents of her knapsack remained silent and complicit.
And the angel answered and said to her, The Holy Spirit shall come on you, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow you. For with God nothing shall be impossible.
She waited, for what Marchand was not sure. In her experience no great crack of thunder would come, no ready acknowledgement that the universe had heard her. Whatever God, Goddess, Everything had in store for her was a mystery. When her knees could not bear her weight any longer and the sound of the Marta train rattled down the tracks, Marchand rose, placed the eggplant with its adornments in the door of the crypt, carefully folded up with earth-dampened cloth, and then tucked it back into her knapsack. She left the whiskey bottle and the milk carton at the base of Gabriel’s column.
A church pew hard and uncomfortable under her, the back of her calves rubbing against the cold leather of the kneeling board tucked under the pew, the air rent by loud blasts from a trumpet. The trumpeter materializes – his cheeks puffing and the sound hanging in the air like ribbons from a pennant, his black face shinning with sweat from the effort of his notes. Her hands clasped in her lap, she hears the notes, understands the call is to something evil, she looses her fingers, begins to draw the protective sigil in the air. Spell unfinished, her right hand no longer has fingers as it rises up to the call of the trumpet, the back of her hand grows scaly, revulsion rises up in her throat, her fingers web together, black eyes open where her knuckles should be, the notes crest, slow, her arms begin to move, syncopated, beyond her control. Her arm turns, a small forked tongue flickers out, testing the air, the black eyes do not blink. The trumpet grows softer, enticing, the man blowing seductively, his eyes closed. Ridges of new bone rise out of the sides of the flesh that used to be her hand as the hooded cobra at the end of her arm stares into her face . . .
Her veil was fine lace and mellowed to a lovely color the shade of an expensive taper candle. Russell had produced both the dress and the veil, borrowed from one relative or another. Begged or bought, they suited her slim frame and dark hair and eyes. The veil helped to disguise the fact that she had the hair of a Marine, cropped as it was into close waves against her scalp. The spell she’d put upon herself, appearing indistinct to anyone who looked at her for more than a second, seemed ill-suited to a bride. False as she was in this undertaking, she didn’t want their guests to find it odd when they could not describe Craig’s mysterious new wife. She could break the spell, but the dream of the cobra had haunted her entire day, making her want to disappear even further into the veil.
“Come in,” she called out, trying to at least inject a small amount of cheer into her voice.
The pen in her hand felt too smooth, the metal cool, the barrel hard. Craig had handed it to her, his smile faint and his own hand trembling uncontrollably. He and Russell had chosen a morning wedding, followed by a lovely brunch at their restaurant, knowing that Craig would not make it through a longer day. With the festivities over and the day drawing to a close the toll was beginning to show, on all of them.
“Marchand, this is where you sign.” Craig pointed, his thick index finger nearly obscuring the line where she needed to sign. When she continued to hesitate, he reached out and tipped up her chin, his eyes searching her face. Russell had trimmed Craig’s beard into a semblance of order and, combined with his flowing hair, he looked like Walt Whitman. He smiled at her, nodding his head. “I know. It’s hard. You are not signing my death warrant. It’s a living will and a Do Not Resuscitate, the warrant was issued long ago.”
Russell looked up from his study of the ruby leaves dropping every few minutes from the dogwood tree in the front yard. “Yes, John, we’ve already gone over this. Please have Marchand sign the papers for ownership of the flower shop. Lord knows, she deserves that at the very least for putting up with our little charade.”
Contest Question: Oakland Cemetery is located in the heart of Atlanta and is open daily for contemplative walks. It's a beautiful place. In my story the events of Hurricane Kartina are bookended with the tornado that ripped through Oakland in March of 2008.
While Marchand is in Oakland she uses a vegetable as part of an ancestor ritual. What vegetable does she use?